Having captained the rifle team at Andover, I was an easy recruit for the Yale team as a freshman, but the pull of crew, St. A’s, NROTC, and the books kept me from joining again sophomore year, so it came as a surprise to get a call from the coach, a grad student music conductor, as that spring’s College Weekend approached.
“Tom, the Symphony will be performing the 1812 Overture on the Cross Campus Saturday evening, and we need your help.”
“Why me? I don’t play an instrument. I can’t read music. And I might have a date. How can I help?”
“This won’t take long. We only need you for the climax of the piece. You know, when the guns go off. You’ll be second shotgun.”
And so it came to pass that Saturday evening, when a group of men carrying firearms around Yale did not attract much attention, that our firing squad occupied the last rank of seats at the top of the High Street Cross Campus steps with the Yale Symphony ranged in rows in front of us. Twilight enveloped the long lawn, on which hundreds of students and their dates were splayed out on blankets, or each other, while Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece swept over them.
The music built to its thundering heights. The conductor – our coach – motioned to us to rise. We stood up, put shotguns to our shoulders, and, as the percussive cadence sounded around us and Moscow’s bells pealed, began firing our volleys. As the guns went off, whatever heavy artillery son was lacking was more than complemented by the lumiere. The muzzle blasts were impressive in the twilight, and, as flaming bits of shell wadding streamed out over the crowds, the gasps and shrieks that greeted the spectacle guaranteed that this would be and 1812 Overture – and College Weekend, date or no date – to remember.
– Tom Weil
What resides in happy and agonized memory, is the four-mile stretch of the Housatonic River at Derby on which we rowed and raced for four years at Yale. Flowing through a thickly treed valley, with a scattering of houses along the banks, the river was both workplace and retreat, our country classroom and our field of battle. No matter how hard the practices or races, even in the heat of early fall or late spring, even on days, when not a breath of air rippled the water’s surface, even under a burning sun, the green panorama that rose on both shores provided a soothing setting far removed from the stone walls and leaded windows of our New Haven campus.
The most enchanting moments were the rare days in late fall or early spring when we were surprised by a light snowfall that covered the river with a soft blanket of slushy snow. As the flakes drifted down around us, enveloping us in a shifting mist, each time we took a stroke, the boat, slowed by the slush, would lurch forward a few feet before coming to a stop. And there, cut into the undulating greyish white blanket on which we floated, would be the evenly spaced black holes, four to a side, port and starboard, dug by the blades of our oars.
I have returned frequently to that place on the river for over fifty years now. It is where the strongest and fondest memories of my time at Yale have taken root.
– Tom Weil
The “Lagoon” was a thin alley of water bounded by wetlands grasses on the way to the Yale Bowl. For several decades it was the fall practice venue for lightweight crews, as well as the practice and race course for intra-college Tyng Cup competition. We usually ran there from Payne Whitney, traversing seemingly unfriendly neighborhoods, retrieved our shells and oars from a weary Quonset hut, tiptoed across a rickety raft, and launched for an hour or two of practice. While most days were a tangle of assaults on one’s sensibilities, those occasions when a cooling breeze blew from the cattails, or one heard the croaks and chirps of the wetlands denizens, or basked in the waning sunlight on the water, lent a moment of simple charm to the experience.
In the late 1960s, Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airlines, offered to upgrade the Lagoon into an Olympic standard rowing course, which would have transformed rowing at Yale, but the dream capsized in the face of strong opposition from environmental and neighborhood groups. As conditions deteriorated over the years, the course silted up, and it wasn’t long before the Lagoon returned to being the exclusive domain of the winged, webbed and four-footed creatures who now no longer suffer the slap of oars, the shouts of coxswains or the intrusion of the long boats into their kingdom.
– Tom Weil