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Sailing to Byzantium

April 15, 2014

Grinnell’s Comedy Improv troupe was invited to Oberlin last weekend to take part in workshops and put on a performance, so Eleanor and five other students applied for funds and a car, but got only the funds. They borrowed a six-seater pickup truck from a friend and set off from Grinnell at 6 am on Friday morning. Little did they know that at 6 am the next morning, they would still be traveling.

In Chesterton, Indiana, south of Chicago, the pickup truck began smoking. Eleanor, who was driving, pulled it to the side of I-80, where they saw it was also leaking fluid. With the assistance of the Indiana state patrol and their feet, they got themselves off the highway and got the truck to a garage, where it was eventually determined that it was, essentially, dead. They called the student who had let them borrow it and she called her dead, who was unwilling to believe it would never run again and made plans to set out for Indiana.

The troupe’s next move was to call Hertz, who advertise that they will rent a car to students who are 21. This turned out to be a complete lie; they will not. They will, however, make a group of college students wait for three hours while they lead them on with promises of taking their money (by now I was quoting the bit from The Sure Thing when two college students are on the side of the road and she says “I have a credit card…but my dad said it was only for emergencies” and he looks at her, his face dripping with rain, and says “maybe one will come up”).

Finally, all six of them took a ride from a stranger (“he had a baby strapped to his chest, mom, how bad could he be?”) and went to the train station near Chesterton. They bought tickets to South Bend on a train leaving at 11 pm. In South Bend, at midnight, they had to find a way to go three miles to another train station. Luckily, they found a taxi they could all squeeze into, and they got to the Amtrak station, where they sat for hours, as the train was three hours late. Finally they arrived in Elyria, Ohio about 7 am, where friends from Oberlin picked them up and took them to campus.

The day of Improv workshops began. I drove up and met Eleanor and three other members of the troupe and took them to lunch. The other three had workshops at 2, but she hadn’t signed up for another until 4, so she and I sat outside in the sun on the first really warm spring day. At 6, Ron came up and we bought them pizza and walked over for the start of the show at 8:30. Walker, who goes to Oberlin, was tied up with rehearsal and then chess, so he was hoping to meet us by 10 pm, when the Grinnell troupe was scheduled to perform.

The show was wonderful—one of the most memorable groups did musical improv, breaking into song at certain points and making the lyrics rhyme. The Grinnell troupe was particularly good at a skit with two movie critics and the rest of the troupe acting out movies—especially when the critics paused the movie to talk about its deep significance. I was amused to find that a Minnesota accent is one of Eleanor’s character voice specialties.

Although the show was still going on, we left after the Grinnell troupe’s performance, when we found that Walker had indeed gotten there to see their half-hour segment. The four of us walked a little ways before Eleanor and Walker split off to go to his dorm room and then Ron split off to go to his car and drive home. I went into the Oberlin Inn, where I’d reserved a room so I could sleep for six hours and then drive five of the troupe members to Cleveland to catch the megabus scheduled for 7 am.

Next morning, in the dark, five very sleepy college students gathered punctually at 5:45 am at my car and we set out for Cleveland. I made it to the street corner specified with no wrong turns, and they got all their bags out of the back and began waiting for the bus. It was 10 am before a bus to Chicago appeared, and they had almost given up hope, talking of a “cursed” trip. We rebooked their connecting bus from Chicago to Iowa City and they set off. And then…nothing else went wrong. The rescheduled bus left Chicago at the time advertised. It arrived in Iowa City as scheduled. A friend was there to pick them up and drive them the last hour back to Grinnell. They got back at 12:30 am central time.

That is their story. I ended up spending most of the weekend on a college campus that is not my own (Ron and I drove up and back on Friday night to take Walker and two of his friends to dinner as planned, even though the other six we’d invited were still en route—this was during the time of the Hertz trick, so Ron spent a while during dinner talking on the phone to an implacable Hertz representative).

Parents are easily identified around a college campus, usually the older people paying for dinner or trying to find a parking space. On Saturday I spent my time strolling around campus thinking of the first few lines of the Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium”:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
–Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

On a campus where hardly anyone knows me, I feel the “tattered coat upon a stick” line. That’s all the gorgeous young people can see, except for the couple that are fond of me and a few others that I’ve met. It’s not like walking around the college campus where I work, where the students know what I do and don’t necessarily associate me primarily with physical appearance.

It’s good to get back to my house, which now feels a bit like Byzantium–a place out of time–to me. The kids observe this every time they come home—they say it’s like home never changes, like the time they’ve spent away hasn’t affected their first sight of it.

Now it feels that way to me, too. Here, I don’t feel so fastened to a dying animal. I can think my thoughts with less regard to the physical, the pace of the traveler, the requirements of the rest of the world.

I’ve read “Sailing to Byzantium” since I was in college myself, but I’ve never understood the ending of the poem so well until now.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2014 12:06 pm

    I read this and wondered why I never felt like that at LSU, a campus where I walk frequently, where I have never been a student or a teacher or an employee (but where I have been, and still actually am, a parent). So why don’t I feel like a parent, or a tattered coat upon a stick, or anything but myself? Maybe it’s because the campus lies right in the heart of the city; you can’t get from Here to There unless you cross through LSU. My babies (and everyone else’s ) played under those live oaks, ate icecream from the dairy store, and listened to the hours chime in the bell tower, Funny how most college campuses are so segregated from their parent cities and develop that rarefied air.

    What an ill-starred trip! But they traded comfort and ease for a story they’ll still be telling 40 years from now, at which point they will probably all agree that stories are better than anything.

    • April 16, 2014 10:40 am

      My babies played under Kenyon’s upside-down tree and ate ice cream from the bookstore; that’s definitely part of the town/gown equation where I work. I’m sure Grinnell and Oberlin are like that for parents who live nearby, but for me, they’re places where I don’t really belong, except to support the kid who goes there.
      I’ll bet they will be telling this story 40 years from now!

  2. April 15, 2014 4:35 pm

    What a misadventure of a trip! But I am glad it all worked out. As for Minnesota accents, we don’t have accents, the rest of the country does though 😉

    • April 16, 2014 10:42 am

      Heh, I’d never heard a Minnesota accent until Eleanor got to Grinnell. There are variations, and the one we laugh at most may be a rare one–the friend who says “bag-ul” (so the first syllable has a short a, as in the word “bag”) instead of bagel (with a long a).

      • April 16, 2014 11:18 am

        Heh, yeah, not very many people have that one but it’s around for sure. Have you ever seen the movie Fargo? That will give you a better, though still exaggerated, idea of what most of us sound like 🙂

  3. April 15, 2014 7:29 pm

    Damn, I always forget how good Yeats is. Always nice to be reminded.

    Glad Eleanor made it back safe and sound! Whole thing sounds awful.

    • April 16, 2014 10:43 am

      Yeats is good.
      And yes, the whole thing was awful, and very worrying! But they did it, and they didn’t need much rescuing.

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