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
We called them ‘Houn bags, and launched them at night from the balcony of our corner suite in Calhoun, overlooking the cross campus. The bags – thin, plastic garment covers obtained from the dry cleaner – were perhaps four feet high, the opening at the bottom about a foot in diameter. We twisted two strands of the thinnest wire we could find into an X, and fastened the corners to the bag’s base. Then we melted a clutch of tiny birthday candles together and fused them to the X’s center. There were many failures, of course. We started with a single large candle – too heavy, the flame too small – etc. But one magic night it all worked. Two roommates – Tom Linden, Tim Ramish – held the bag over the edge of the balcony, I lit the candles, and physics happened. The bag inflated and drifted toward Berkeley College, a gossamer jellyfish bobbing majestically skyward.
Disbelief and consternation on the ground.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Oh, my God.”
We’d concealed ourselves from passersby, so the whole effect was of an independent, gravity defying, glowing something. Flying fish? Alien mothership? Who knew? The bags rose and rose, disappearing into the New Haven night. We never found their remains.
We had, in all, six or seven successful launches. Was there danger of fire? I guess. What did we know? It was said Sir Isaac Newton floated fire-balloons of tissue paper in his youth, and what was good enough for Sir Isaac was good enough for us. Excelsior! For better or worse, the ‘Houn bag inhabits, along with the first eighteen lines of Chaucer’s Prologue, an immutable place in my memory, among the first rank of accomplishment at Yale.
– Wayne Liebman
I fondly remember playing touch football on the Cross Campus in front of Sterling Library and between Berkeley College’s two courtyards (which were too small for football but perfect for some killer Frisbee.) Senior year, football was not an option, due to construction of an underground library. I remember a bunch of us going out to climb into the trees on the Cross Campus to save them from being removed by bulldozers prior to the beginning of construction. We eventually were assured that they would be replanted. The construction site was a good source of wood for my fireplace.
– Larry Wasser
At dusk, the quadrangle in front of Sterling Library had had a kind of magic for me, evoking a feeling of being in a place of wonder. So much around that part of the campus seems to be from a world where the unique can happen.
– Jose A. Giron MD
Probably my favorite place at Yale is the Cross Campus in front of Sterling Library. The rectangles of grass, desolate in winter, that comes alive in the spring. A place of relaxation, of casual laughter and bright sunshine. A place where nearly everyone passes through, sometimes sits for a while alone or in groups, and usually smiles a lot. A place we almost lost when the bulldozers showed up to push down the trees for the underground library extension, and we sat in front of the bulldozers, and I gained new respect for Yale because we found out that the student voices mattered too.
– Carl Eifler