The First 54 Years

Carl Carmer, Class of 1914

Delivered: June 1964

The 50-year annalist of my father’s class reported here some 29 years ago that the Class of 1885 had been faced by a freshman who enforced his demand for his civil rights by drawing a revolver on them. This has made all half-century reports since then anti-climactic. I fear our own will be no exception.

Our Class of 1914, when its 45 members assembled for the first time, seemed an average Hamilton College class. We really had, for the most part, come over the New York State hills to Clinton as Elihu Root’s classic description of the College stated. And when, as we climbed the Hill, our eyes were blessed with a full view of the Chapel, destined to be in our memories most beautiful of all buildings, we became the dedicated sons of alma mater.

A portion of every report similar to this one has in the last 100 years or so been devoted to the quaintness of the good old times. On that score we have a lot to say. Take the food for instance that had prepared us for college entrance.

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are” was the legend printed over a reproduction of Niagara Falls on every box of Shredded Wheat — then the most popular of new-fangled breakfast foods. This frequently led us to wondering if our parents, knowing full well what we were, could tell what we had eaten.

Our gustatory world consisted in our earlier years of well-tested staples. Sunday dinners of roast beef, mashed potatoes, green peas, asparagus and ice cream — home-frozen and dasher-licked by the operator who had numbed his hands with ice and salt — and we were the operators. Sunday supper was still, more often than not, corn-meal-mush and milk. Red-letter breakfasts were buckwheat pancakes and maple syrup. So far my research has shown practically none of us had ever eaten broccoli, zucchini, an alligator pear, an artichoke or an oyster (though one of us had failed in the effort and carried a semi-gelatinous bivalve in his pocket for a whole evening of fun and frolic).

We were quaint all right. We can remember when our hometowns had two telephone companies (the Home and the Bell); the Sabbaths when long lines of horses and buggies awaited the end of church services at our livery stables (“Free hitching until afternoon”); the time when our leading citizen for the first time drove his horseless carriage downtown (an occasion forever memorialized as the day of the run-aways).

As for costume, the Class of 1914 arrived at the College just at the end of the sweater era. These duds (plus meerschaum pipes whose white bowls were stained through continuous smoking to a luscious brown) were regarded as indications of massive physical endowments (top and bottom) and an overwhelming masculinity. The turtleneck, it is my sad duty to relate, “never had it so good: and has not since then climbed back to its former status. We forsook the pipes for Turkish cigarettes and somehow or other we developed a folk song — a barbershop ballad which so far as countless researchers can determine was the first singing commercial (though it was never broadcast over radio or television). It needed a foreword explaining that to us a Fatima cigarette was a “Fat” and that a quartette rendering was full of exciting barbershop “swipes.”

O some people like Rameses
And some people like Pall Malls
And some people like Murads
Think them better than all.
But my choice of a cigarette
And a good one at that
It’s that Turkish blend
That’s good up to the end
It’s a F-A-T.

Our shirts were connected to our collars by small and easily lost studs, and collars were cylinders looking like nothing so much as the round white cisterns in which oil companies store gasoline. Fastened to a stud at the nape of the neck the two ends came around to close tightly in front where they were wedged between the collarbone and the chin. From the bottom, like thin dark gutters, dribbled cravats. The more invisible the four-in-hand knot on the innerside, the smoother the dresser. One note of high approval for such perfection was to tell the wearer “You’re There!” And when a particularly well-put-together female invaded the campus quadrangle, wild cries from Carnegie Hall announced the obvious fact, “She’s there!

We came to Hamilton at the height of the career of its president. Melanchthon Woolsey Stryker had already made himself a legend, and we both feared and honored him. He was a stocky man of florid face and thick graying hair. His black moustache bristled. So did the man behind it. He drove his shiny black buggy and brown mare with a flourish. He walked with a flourish. When he sang we knew what Shakespeare meant by the stage direction — a flourish of trumpets. In his teaching he frequently moved so far ahead of us that we had no idea of his meaning. He was the only man I ever knew who used seriously the expression “The whatness of the which” and made it seem rational.

He was the poet who wrote and set to beautiful hymn-music the verses we sing to Alma Mater — “Dear is thy homestead glade and glen” — and their spell still brings to even our most cynical alumni lumps in the throat, tears in the eyes.

He was the most complete individualist we were ever to know and we, who had herded through the usual routine preparations for college, were disturbed, even stunned by his emphatic and eccentric (I use the word in its exact sense) opinions.

He was — or could be — a speaker who crated silences in our unruly Chapel — suspenseful silences of deep feeling. I suppose each of us remembers different snatches from his sermons: after the disaster of the Titanic — “those two noble Jews, refusing to be parted, lying clasped in each other’s arms on the ocean’s floor;” after the torpedoing of the Lusitania — “I have ordered the flag lowered from its staff on this campus. It will not fly gain until our nation makes answer.”

Mot impressive, and shocking to us, of all the sermons he preached us, arms flailing, feet stamping:

“Whatever the path you choose,” he shouted, “be somebody. If you decide to be a villain, then be the wickedest villain you can possibly be. Be somebody.”

Melancthon Woolsey Stryker hated sham and hypocrisy. Most of all he hated mobs. Some thought him an intellectual snob because he despised mob-thinking — the most ominous of all dangers to a democracy.

We heard the legend when we came to College of his preaching a sermon on the choice which vacillating; guilt-ridden Pontius Plate offered a mob — to set free either Jesus or Barabbas, a common criminal. As I remember the story, when Dr. Stryker came to his last paragraph he had worked his way to the rear of the podium. “The mobs have always made sinful choices,” he roared. And then, impersonating the mob before Pilate, he moved forward in three great strides. With each step he yelled at the top of his voice: “Barabbas! Barabbas! Barabbas!”

A week or so later an undergraduate with the incredibly Latin name of Rex Titus ended with an oration on the Republican high tariff or something equally irrelevant on a dull note from the back of the platform. Then to the electrification of his sleeping classmates he stormed toward them. “Barabbas!” he shouted. “Barabbas! Barabbas!”

Prexie (as we called the great man) immediately demanded the expulsion of the offender, but the Hamilton faculty has always been a democratic governing body and the majority of them regarded Titus’s offense as more impudent than insolent.

“It has always seemed to me,” said the guttural voice of Schnitz (Dr. Herman Karl Brandt, professor of German to you), “that a man who subjects himself to ridicule is bound to receive it.” Titus remained.

There were other moments during our years at Hamilton when Dr. Stryker failed to recognize the climate of the student body. Once he kept us all after morning chapel to learn a new baseball song he had composed to the tune of the then popular song, “Yip-pi-addee-i-yay.” The first two lines ran:

They’re the ladies for me, they are
They’re the ladies for me.

We forgave him — do you forgive a God? — and the matter was never mentioned again.

Prexie was a master of Latin but he learned to pronounce it in the days before the scholars decided how it had been spoken in the days of Horace. This led to a number of misunderstandings. He conducted our Commencement exercises in Latin. Whenever he announced a choral number he said, “Musica sit,” and the sitting choir stood up.

He was an incurable punster and on one occasion when, for a reason I have forgotten, I was invited to dinner, two roasted ducks on a platter were brought to the table.

“Carmer,” said my host briskly, “What’s the Latin for I am a leader?”

I blushed and stammered and he answered his own question. “Some ducks,” said the president of Hamilton College.

Though Hamilton needed more students during his whole administration, Prexie would never compromise to obtain another matriculant.

“Dr. Stryker, do you smoke?” said a pious father desiring to protect his son from sinful influences.

“Sometimes,” said Prex, “when I go fishing.”

“Dr. Stryker,” said the parent, “I would not allow my son to go fishing with you.”

Prexie slammed his fist down on the desk. “He has not been invited, Sir,” he shouted.

One other virtue I would emphasize before I end my essay on this great man. Through his choices (and perhaps the choices of his predecessors) he has a highly distinguished faculty with which to work. Among them were a professor of French who so aroused an undergraduate to the beauties of Provençal that the young man became a mighty influence on the whole course of American poetry.

Our professor of ecnomics held a “moonlighting” job as a member of the New York State Legislature.

Our professor of philosophy wore a frock coat and striped pants to class — the very model of a learned old-time professor.

Our professor of chemistry was also president of the American Peony Society, an instrumentalist who imported the best chamber music quartettes to Hamilton and played along with them, president of the Society for the Breeding of Sealyhm Terriers and the originator of a series of Saturday night readings in the works of George Barnard Shaw, then regarded as a dangerous radical.

Our first instructor who aimed at creating physical competence in us was a bouncy little man with a curly white moustache whom we knew as “Uncle John.” His sole qualification for the job, as far as we ever knew, consisted of his having belonged to a circus in which at every performance he raced a galloping and intelligent horse — intelligent because he knew how to slow up just in time for Uncle John to break the tape just ahead of him.

It is my thesis today that it was this group of unique and incorrigible characters, led by a master eccentric, who produced the Hamilton Class of 1914.

We were not a highly intellectual class. Our grades, I am sure, did not compare with those of some of the classes that graduated just before us. Yet while undergraduates we developed singular distinction. For instance we have to confess that we were the only class that ever celebrated a book burning. But since the books we burned were “trots,” the English translation with which other classes had deceived their professors into believing their translations were their own, we danced about the flames.

Two years ago Dunder Thomas of the Class of 1912 said, and I think truthfully, 1912 was not only a class but a fraternity. It has shone like an eternal, changeless light ever since it graduated — steady, dependable, brilliant. But whatever rays 1914 has emitted have come from a berserk beacon, a reversible Fourth of July pinwheel, a wildly circling beam from the forehead of an insane Polyphemus.

In the decade that followed our graduation, the man whom we would have unanimously elected (had there been prophetic elections) as the most unlikely to succeed, became nationally known as an important poet; our mightiest athlete, an all but instant pitcher for the New York Giants, became the country’s most hospitable tavern keeper; the man we would have chosen as most likely to succeed as a tavern keeper — he knew everybody and everybody knew him — became America’s best player of a difficult outdoor game called curling, and still held that athletic rating (as Time magazine later informed us) when he was nearly 50; our mathematical genius took to preaching and calculating how he could get us all into heaven, while the man who had flunked more mathematics courses than any other classmate was in 1918 endangering the war effort by teaching calculus (a subject he had never studied) in the School of Fire for Field Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Of the 50 percent of the class to whom their fellows would have recommended that they never allow their portraits to be painted, one eventually did so at the request of friends, admirers and associates who actually paid for the resultant likeness. Our one professional soldier, a chicken colonel, went Navy as soon as he retired. He commandeered a doughboy barracks, converted it to a riverboat and navigated her for nearly 100 miles through enemy country — Confederate, that is — to the Atlantic, where he dropped her landing gear and has lived in her, as a Yankee spy, ever since. The man to whom we would have agreed on as least likely to become a missionary became one as soon as he graduated. He spent his daylight hours educating the heathen, his nights as ambassador without portfolio to Turkish society. Before the United States entered World War I, he had become an ambulance driver for the Allies and was back for the wedding of a classmate in Johnstown. There he nearly won attention from the bride by claiming three ambulances were shot from under him — well — two anyway.

Out of a memory dimmed by 15 years our poet classmate conjured up a scene very like this one today. Now John V.A. Weaver is memory but these words live:

Young gentlemen, you are now going out into—
Lord! The heat, and the slipping pallid faces
of relatives, classmates, professors, swimming through
the June stench of the gym … twenty-two cases of beer last night!
That’s what I call a spread!
“Buzz-buzz, gobble-gobble, completed your education
go out prepared for the grim fight ahead
armed with ideas and guff and blah … the nation —“
I’ll get four dollars for the cap and gown —
they cost eleven… yes I might as well
work in the bank, to start with…
still a town so small… insurance must be easy to sell —
I’ll grab that little Alice tonight, and kiss her, so soft and round…
thank God, at last the noise of Prexie’s blather stops … I’ll really miss her…
“Oh Alma Mater, we still will be thy boys… “
Hours later, in the lilac-cloyed dusk
we sat upon the porch of the fraternity house
we four, watching the little lights of homes
exploding, noiselessly, one by one, in the valley.

To these lines I once made answer:

Well, John your ashes are that dusk today
They are the lilacs and Oriskany’s stream
While we are here to make “Trial Balance” as you called it once again,
Now that the years demand their strict account
The reckoning is not as easy as it seems
For none can tell who wins and who has lost
Nor name the value of the chips by which we count.

We could handle a convention
In a hotel I could mention,
Sell you emblems to be worn with local pride,
Feed you until your aches stomachic
Eased by waters sal hepatic
End in flushes purged by Germacide
We can teach you
We can preach you
We can save your widow years of grim despair
We can import
We can export
We can tell you all the answers on the air.

We can sell you a home
Where the dark subways roam
We can fit your grimy fingers with a glove
We can take down that hummock
That once was your stomach
And all of us can practice, most of us can practice, well some of us can practice arts of love.

We look at stones, sir,
Or human bones, sir,
And we utter strange deductions clear as Greek
We advertise you
And we advise you
And all of us, God help us all, yes all of us, we speak.

We don’t know, John, as I say to you before
We don’t know what to count and what to leave go
How to weigh a victory over strained foes
How to measure lives that never sought to win.
I wouldn’t say that we are much surprised
The way things turned out for us all
Maybe I’m wrong but most of us could see
The future working in each other
Some of us will be coming back again
Remembering what we said and things we did
And none of us, alive or dead, will seem
To be much different then. What they’ll recall
Will be a way of speech, a look, a grin
Things that were with us when we climbed the Hill
And saw each other first.

The records say that we were graduated from this institution 50 years ago. Theoretically some of the more active of us have retired — thus giving themselves more time for more interesting and more strenuous work. By this time Prexie Stryker and his unique associates have had their way with us. We are all unique, too. No one may with immunity call a member of the Class of 1914 a Senior Citizen. After us came the deluge of Junior Citizens. At least a part of their shortcomings stemmed from a change in the American father image. Our fathers had been men who sought as soon as possible to become dignified citizens of substance. They wanted to look older than they were. They wore moustaches and sometimes beards. They extended gold chains from vest pocket to vest pocket where resided a gold watch and possibly a gold toothpick.

But when American fathers discovered that by wearing plus-four knickers they could look almost as young as their sons they immediately put them on and felt free. They announced that they were no longer fathers but their children’s best pals and won instant demotion. Two ages, father-trained in the old school, have endured: the first characterized by lack of respect given by a child to a father, the second and more tragic — the loss of a father’s respect for his child. Perhaps the most regrettable of all developments in our social history has been the discovery by teenagers that two of them can physically destroy an adult male. When we were in our teens, if my memory serves me, our regard for adults was such that we hardly ever thought of such an action, and almost never performed it.

This leads me to the fact that we are now old fogies. We are told that we are not realistic. We would rather be dead than red. We have no intention of abandoning the concepts we learned to admire on this campus.

Do not think our days of battle are over. The old guard never surrenders. We are still the unbroken square (or “squares”) who stand by such ancient abstractions as loyalty, chivalry, respect, justice, discipline. These have not been honored for so long in some of our highest social circles that they have been forgotten. We have a crafty scheme, however. All we need to do now to return them to their rightful places is to write the prefix “neo” before each one of them. Soon neo-loyalty, neo-chivalry, neo-justice, neo-discipline will be in and the old days of “let’s be realistic” will be so out that Harvard students will no longer be demanding girls in their rooms at all hours. Being realistic will soon — like speaking in tongues (glossalalia?) will be unquestionably old hat.

No, we are not a fraternity. We have too varied interests and too irreconcilable opinions for that. I believe the reason we are so close is a selfish one — we have always amused each other. Our reunions are punctuated by wild laughter at the incongruous events of our separate careers. (One of our number has recently been added to the advisory board of a women’s fashion magazine.)

Humorist Dorothy Parker said Alexander Woollcott believed if he were a good boy that when he died he would go to Hamilton College. Our idea is a little different. To use the poetic imagery of the Indian tribes for whose education this institution was founded we calculate that when we saunter the Milky Way, tasting the strawberries that grow beside it, we will not insist on going to Hamilton College. Wherever we may go, Hamilton College — the state of mind, the remembered dwelling place of beauty, the rendezvous of our youthful fellowship — will be going with us.

Carl Carmer, Class of 1914

While attending Hamilton, Carl Carmer was a quarter-miler on the track team and an avid tennis player. Following graduation from Hamilton, he earned his M.A. from Harvard and later taught English while writing such works as Listen for a Lonesome Drum. Best known for his prose work about Alabama folkways, Stars Fell on Alabama, Carl had a distinguished career as a novelist and historian. Listed in Who’s Who, he served as president of the Author’s Guild of the Authors League of America, president of the Poetry Society of America, director of the American Civil Liberties Union and head of the American Center of P.E.N., the international society of writers and editors. He was also editor of Rivers of America, as well as a writer of children’s books.

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