Souvenirs Tell Stories — Part 2
A while back, I wrote an essay about the first trophy I ever earned (“Souvenirs Tell Stories: Part 1”). Initially, I thought the essay would include three examples: the trophy and two other souvenirs. Once I began writing, however, I realized that the trophy story itself could stand on its own, and the other souvenirs would have to tell their own stories. Thus, this second part in the series (not sure how many parts there will be) focuses on my freshman beanie from my first year of college.
In early September 1969, I arrived at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, to begin studying to become a high-school English teacher. Though my family lived only 30 miles west in Amsterdam, my parents allowed me to live in the dormitories on campus and eat my meals in the nearby dining hall. So after my mother drove me to school and deposited me in Plassman Hall, I met my roommate, Ed. Then, the two of us walked to the gymnasium, Gibbons Hall, where we received our new head gear.
If you’ve never seen one of these beanies before, they are like undersized baseball caps; they barely cover the top of your head, and the small brim in front is only about an inch long. They look like a souvenir cap you might buy for a newborn baby. And that’s exactly the way the upperclassmen treated us on that first day of freshman orientation.
At the time, Siena, a Franciscan college, had just decided to admit females, but the school had made the switch so late in the preceding academic year that only 10 females were admitted, and they all lived off campus. As a result, all the upperclassmen were males, and they eagerly anticipated the initiation set before us.
“You will wear your beanie at all times,” a loud senior instructed us as we donned our green and gold caps, “unless you are in a classroom or in the privacy of your own room in the dormitories. The only other times you are allowed to remove your beanies are when you hear the bells ring from Siena Hall. And while those bells are ringing, you must stop, face Siena Hall, place your beanie over your heart with your right hand, bow your head, and remain still and silent until the bells stop.”
This activity actually sounded like fun when he first described it, but it became annoying after a while because those bells rang every 15 minutes. In addition, we had to wear those beanies not only for the two days of orientation but also for the first full week of classes. And while wearing those beanies, we also experienced funeral processions, air raids, and milk runs.
The funeral processions typically occurred as we returned to the dormitories after our late-afternoon classes. “Line up! Line up! Line up!” Some of the upperclassmen yelled at us before we entered the building. “Leave your books right there on the sidewalk, and look only at the ground in front of you. This is a serious affair.” Then, one of the seniors marched us around the perimeter of the building while the remaining upperclassmen tossed water balloons or poured water on us from two, three, and four floors up. I’m still not sure why they called this ritual a “funeral” when it was so much more like a baptism.
Next, after we retrieved our books, returned to our rooms, and changed our clothes, we experienced the air raids in the dining hall. We’d get about halfway through our evening meal when someone would blow an air horn, and all the others would begin shouting, “Air raid! Air raid! Air raid!”
When that occurred, all the freshmen would have to rise from their seats, fully extend their arms, and fly around the cafeteria as fast as they could, trying not to hit one another. At 6’4’’ and as one of the tallest members of our class, I was singled out for special duty as an air traffic controller. That meant I had to grab a cafeteria tray, climb on top of one of the tables, and hold the tray aloft as if it were a radar screen. Naturally, I also had to rotate slowly, so all the planes could travel safely. After a minute or so of spinning, I worried that I might lose my balance and fall, but if that actually happened, I’m sure my older classmates would have caught me before I crashed to the floor. Yeah, right!
At last, the final chore of the day was a milk run. “Hey, big boy, get over here,” a nearby senior called to me after the air raid terminated, and after I climbed down from the table.
“Yes, sir!” I responded immediately.
“Put your hands in your pockets, and keep them there.” I did that quickly too.
“Now,” he added, “go get me a glass of milk.”
At the time, Siena used eight-ounce, cardboard drinking cups and large milk dispensers that required the users to push a big, white button. So with all my dental dexterity, I retrieved a cup with my teeth, placed it under the milk dispenser tube, and pushed the button with my nose. Once the cup was full, I again used my teeth to carry the cup to my tormentor and place it on the table before him. Laughing at my expense, he gave his final order: “Now, pick it up, and drink it.”
As I did so and as I spilled most of it down the front of my shirt, he released me for the evening: “Good job, kid. You’ll make a great milkman someday.”
At the time, of course, I hated all of these humiliating activities, and I couldn’t wait for our initiation period to end. Looking back, however, I feel a bit of nostalgia for the experience, and I realize now that this harmless hazing probably unified our freshman class somewhat and also signified the end of an era. The girls who enrolled the following year and lived on campus never received beanies and, thankfully, did not endure funerals, air raids, or milk runs.
So what will I do with my beanie — still adorned with Siena football pins and a “Work for Peace” button — now that I’ve held on to it for almost 50 years? Maybe I’ll donate it to the alumni office, and perhaps the staff there can use it somehow to chronicle a lighthearted tradition from a simpler and more innocent time.