The Experiment

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Editor’s Note – This is all just a little experiment of mine. If you think you have already read this post, I assure you, it’s all in your mind. What we ‘scientists’ call, deja vu. If you haven’t read this post, read on and enjoy.

In parsing through the pages of my life, I have come to a curious conclusion. While I lived my life on the straight and narrow, as bland as the English diet I subsisted on in my formative years, somewhere around the age of 17 I burst from the shell kicking and screaming and ready to make up for lost time. That final Senior Year in High School may have been ‘too little, too late’ to make a run for Everybody’s All American – or Homecoming Queen 1989 – but it was just the right time to reinvent myself as I entered the hallowed halls of Zoo-Mass.

You can keep your Yorkshire Pudding. Easy Ed wants enchiladas.

So it is at the University of Massachusetts, that my current personality finally took root and turned an awkward young adult into someone with some semblance of confidence. Now, I don’t carry it in spades but I’m leagues ahead of where I once was. Of course, I’d like to think that all I did was bring some balance to the force.

Anyway, my collegiate career at UMASS went well. I pulled down some decent grades, took on some extra-curricular activities (most notably in a 3-year stint writing for the largest college daily newspaper in the country – The Daily Collegian) and found time to take on a little side job to earn some extra scratch for the essentials (something had to fuel my raging midnight D.P. Dough addiction).

Most importantly, I followed the sage advice imparted by a senior advisor during Freshman orientation.

“You want to study hard. You want to do well. But when you look back upon your college career – sixty years from now – it’s the friendships that will mean the most. So make the most of this and make this college your castle.”

I’m sure I’m paraphrasing, but the message was loud and clear. Study Hard. Play Hard. Like they say, everything is good in moderation.

Well, that sage (actually a senior Residential Advisor enjoying the final moments of his sunset year), spoke the truth. Years later, I’ve got a decent career working for a tech firm in the financial services industry pulling down enough dough to raise a family of two kids, two dogs and one wife, and I couldn’t be further away from my college curriculum. The degree in Journalism simply bought me a spot at the interview. The only reporting I’m doing these days is shouting out box score results from my office to my cubicle-bound cronies. (Geez, I gotta’ stop writing that and reminding myself how depressed I should be that I am in a job for the money and not doing what I really enjoy).

Anyway, back on track, that first year at UMASS was the proverbial whirlwind. There was enough incident and anecdote to fill volumes (it’s amazing how with the right amount of spit and polish anybody can weave the little details of their lives into some semblance of a compelling fiction.) All of those tales are chapters for another day.

For dramatic purpose, we need to skip ahead two years and land at the tail end of Junior Year – Second Semester.

UMASS is divided into residential areas. At the time there were five (think the five original boroughs and think of me as Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York and you’ll sort of get the picture – presuming in that alternate reality, Leo was a loathsome little troll).

There was Southwest, which is dotted with high-rises and is essentially where students go before they die or drop out. That area is the sole reason they call the school, Zoo-Mass. Central and Orchard Hill abut each other and are fairly indistinguishable. The Earthy Crunchy tree-huggers seem to gravitate to that residential area for some reason and the only major event of note is during the Spring Mud season, the hills that slope from their dormitories to the outskirts of campus make for nice human mud slides. Then there is Sylvan, which is distinguished by the fact that all rooms are suites (or collections of 3 – 4 dorm rooms in segmented living areas). What this meant was if you had a group of 6 or 8 buddies (or militia members), you could live (or assemble) in some semblance of privacy.

I lived in Northeast (Thatcher dormitory to be exact). Northeast was laid out in a ring, with seven dorms surrounding a traditional campus quad. Northeast sat at the top of a hill, looking down upon the quad, which provided a nice vantage point to scope that grassy expanse of land in hopes of spying some diversion (Frisbee, Whiffle Ball, Jarts) which could segregate you from your syllabus.

The Northeast Quad also became home to the annual Northeast Streak Week, which I am proud to say, began its inaugural run at the close of my Junior year and became an annual event thereafter.

It all began so innocently.

In a weird twist of fate, I arrived at Thatcher in early September 1990 to find three of my fellow Rockland High School alumni cohabitating in the same dorm. While I lived with my buddy Rich, our RHS pal Eric (Buzz) was rooming with Jim (or Casa – after Casagrande. It means Big House and that’s what he was). To that mix came one of my best amigos, Jay Bain, who transferred in during the sophomore year from Northeastern. Five guys from the same lunch table were now living in the same dorm. Give us time and we’d rule the five boroughs of Zoo Mass.

It was Jay who shook up the quiet confines of Northeast with his public nudity. Much like a young Kevin Bacon taught us it was all right to dance, Jay assured all it was OK to drop our pants.

Looking back now, the No-Boxer Rebellion started fairly small. One day, while cresting the stairs of the dorm, I looked up to see Jay strolling by wearing just a sock and a guitar. The guitar was on his back. The sock was on his front.

From that came tales of co-ed naked dance parties. All very chaste (think the warm confines of a nudist colony or nude beach) but naked nonetheless. We would hear whispers and innuendo but none of us could ever really latch on to the specific coordinates of these couture-optional soirees, so they remained just that. Myths.

Then came Finals week in the final weeks of May. The way UMASS is set up, classes end and give way to a few days of prep before Finals commence. These are supposed to be study days but the majority use the time to decompress. To let loose, let down your hair, take a deep breath and CHUG CHUG CHUG before diving headfirst into the abyss of all day exams.

Regardless, the fear of Final Exams set everyone a little on edge. It was tough to relax knowing that these tests were make it or break it for another year (little did we realize, it was a state school so as long as you kept sending a check you could stay enrolled until they granted you a Common Law Fellowship).

Still, our own personal Che, or Jay, Guevara felt the air of uncertainty and in the great collegiate tradition, seized the day.

It was a warm Spring afternoon, just a shade past Five O’Clock, as I sat in the Dining Commons noshing on some Wheat Chex (I owe General Mills my life for helping me soldier through that horrid meal plan) when I heard a sound of thunder. It began small, like that famous Jurassic Park water drip. One tremor was followed by three or four. The din grew louder. The tables began to shake as place settings and coffee cups vibrated so rapidly they almost took flight. Something was coming. Fast and hard. Suddenly, there was movement off to the right. Just above the seating area, where a bank of picture glass windows provided a view of the gentle hills above, a flash of flesh bloomed. There was Jay, running naked as the day he was born (assuming he was born wearing Nikes), followed by a small herd of fellow students. (“My God, he HAS a small army!!!”) The all-caboose train departed as swiftly as it arrived and the stifling silence was soon shattered by laughter.

Everyone’s day had been made.

The next evening, as I was waltzing through the Campus Center on the way to the Blue Wall for one of their kick-ass chocolate chip cookies, I spied a familiar site. Not Jay, but his second-in-command, BJ. BJ was a band mate of Jay’s and was one of those guys who’s very easy to get to know. He was a liberal free spirit but one of those very laid back casual guys who didn’t try to assault you with their agenda. Anyway, BJ was trying to prop open the North Entrance of the Campus Center and was directing a few lackeys to strategic positions nearby. I mosied over and asked him what was up. “Round 2” he replied. I asked if I could help and he directed me to the South Entrance. It might look too conspicuous to Campus Security if two doors were propped so BJ wanted me to hang by the entrance and when the time was right, to simply hold the door open for a small stream of guys and dolls.

No problem”, I replied. I moved southward and took my position.

The clock struck 10:00 p.m. and the Campus Center was abuzz with the usual assortment of students, grabbing snacks or a cup of java or simply hanging out and jawing all night. With no school tomorrow (and more importantly, no exams) this night had the feeling of an all-nighter. Despite the assorted activity, a hush seemed to draw over the crowd. The proverbial ‘calm before the storm.’ Then it began. That low murmur which gave rise to a moderate rumble and finally became a cacophony of thunder. Something wicked this way comes.

Through the North Entrance they funneled in. Jay and BJ were leading a pack that had easily doubled its population. What was once a Baker’s Dozen, was now somewhere north of 25 bounding birthday suits. They poured into the Campus Center and every clothed individual just stopped dead in their tracks as the skin stream wound its way through. As they neared my perch, I grabbed for the door, swung it open and granted them safe passage into the night. Once again, the silence was met with laughter.

Everyone’s night had been made.

This brings us to the third, and last, day of our tale. Word from the front lines was Jay Guevara was going to stage his last leg of this year’s rebellion in the center of the Northeast Quad. His hopes were to turn the Quad into one massive clothing-optional block party. He and his posse were looking to get things started by doing a few laps in the au-natural around the perimeter of the quad. They knew that the more laps they did, the more attention they would grab, which would then coax people out of their rooms and into the great outdoors where the likelihood that more people would join the cause increased.

I’ve got to give it to Jay. He knew how to inspire people. I know from experience.

Yes, tis’ true. I decided that I’d be a doorman, no more. I was officially signing up for my own Tour of Booty.

I headed down to the dorm rec room, which had now been transformed into a staging area (complete with changing curtains and tanning beds). There were students assembled everywhere, ready to toss aside everything (or at the very least their button-flies) for Jay’s cause. The numbers had risen from the evening before. The crowd had to be 100 deep. Still, gazing around, you could easily discern the new recruits from the vets.

The rookies were the ones wearing clothes.

Greeting Jay, we reminisced briefly about our days at Rockland High. Days spent idly playing stickball in the street or Double Dragon at the local 7-11. Innocent times. Gone now like so many quarters to Apu. Now, here we were, all grown up. Ready to go make a stand. Ready to believe in something. ANYTHING!!!

Ready to get naked because we had nothing better to do.

We shook hands and then Jay motioned to the clock. 11:55 p.m. No more time for pleasantries. Jay rose and marched towards the dorm exit. The rest of us waited a tick, thinking back to our loved ones, to the girl we had pining for us back at home or the parents ready to bake us an apple pie, and then we said goodbye to all that. As Don McLean’s voice warbled through the tin speakers of some dude’s SoundDesign boom box, we bid adios to innocence.

Jay stood proud atop the hill Thatcher sat upon and looked down on the quad. Despite the late hour, every window in the seven surrounding dorms was ablaze with blinding light. A sea of stars nestled below a sea of stars. And further below, just upon the grass, was a Woodstock in waiting. There were people everywhere. Some clothed. Some not. All awaiting their William Wallace. Their Maximus. Their Jay Guevara.

He stepped forward to say a few words of inspiration.

“The university calls us free…
…but we are not free.
As long as your skin suffocates beneath the constraints of your Claiborne.
Your Bugle Boys.
Your FUBUS!!!
YOU – WILL – NEVER – BE — FREE!!!”

The crowd was his – their attention rapt – each and every person hanging on each and every word. A collective thought coursed through the crowd, our hive mind picking up the signal and passing it further down the line.

“Amen, brother. (Pause) Hey, is it cold out here or is it just me?”

Suddenly, trouble brewing. Blue and red lights bathe the dorm walls. While a few people pop in pacifiers and wave their light sticks, the rest of us know the 4-1-1.

It’s the 5-0.

The Campus Cops move in, en masse, taking stations all around the perimeter. Cruisers block the two main entrances to the quad. A cop on horseback arrives and stands sentinel a short distance away. From the trees come a couple of plain clothes detectives. A mailbox flashes a badge. They’re everywhere – crawling out of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in the area. The jig, it would seem, is up.

We all look to Jay.

Being the closest to him, I see a cloud of doubt envelop his eyes. As quickly as it forms, it dissipates and in its wake is steely resolve. We have come to streak and dammit, streaking is what we’ll do.

Jay opens his mouth to issue a proclamation to his followers. What infinite words of wisdom will flow? The mind wanders.

“CARPE DIEM?”
“FREEEEE-DOMMMMM?!?”
“ON MY WORD… UNLEASH HELL?!?!?”

Jay silences the introspective inquiry with one word.

“RRRRRRRRUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!”

And with that, we’re off. Shirts are shorn. Pants are dropped. And an entire student body of student bodies begins to run for their lives. But a curious thing happens. The cops don’t move. They just sit and watch.

The perverts!!! They were just here for the show.

So, we continue to run. A great mass victory lap around the Quad. Smiles all around. Everyone feels great. Everyone feels free. Everyone feels liberated. I contemplate high-fiving some fellow streakers and then think better of it. After all, I DO know where their hands have been.

As quickly as it begins, it ends. The majority of us reconnect with our clothing and then just hang out (no pun intended) enjoying the cool night air and the instant karma Jay’s rebellion granted us. The night’s entertainment carries on for a bit as some more adventurous types stage an impromptu clothing optional variety show.

There are streakers with sparklers. There’s a streaker wheel barrel race (my bud Justin placed third). There are streakers on roller blades (yeah, we winced too!!!) There’s even a streaker game of leap frog (the one time the cops looked like they might have to step in and enforce some blue laws.)

Everyone’s semester had been made.

Eventually, the night came to a close. And the day dawned. And the books opened. And the Finals were taken. And we closed the book on another year of college. One more down. One more sad step forward towards responsible adulthood.

A year later, the scene played out the same way. While it wasn’t the same as the first year (what was once a spontaneous rebellion had now birthed a National Holiday of sorts), it was thrilling to see the genesis of what could potentially become a campus tradition.

A few more years went by, and on a lark, my buddies Sean, Justin and I decided to head to Amherst for a little post-grad reunion and to sip some fine brews from our favorite ale house, The Pub. Sometime, late into the evening, we decided to take a walk from town to campus to take in the familiar sites and haunt the hallways of nostalgia. As we crested the hill that runs behind Thatcher, we heard a familiar chorus drift up from the valley below. Justin checked his watch and the date and deduced that we were just days away from Finals Week. We all looked at each other.

“No, It couldn’t be.”

Regardless we beat our feet in the direction of the sound. As we pushed through some brush, we came face-to-face with some bush. The whole Quad was stacked with naked students, who were keeping up tradition by tossing aside their inhibitions, just as quickly as their Abercrombies, for a few moments of freedom.

We smiled at what we had wrought.

It had all started with a sock and a guitar.

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