I took a stroll today that spanned not only distance but also nearly 30 years of my life. The occasion was a return to Purdue, my old alma mater for my annual veterinary fall conference. However, today I made a critical error in scheduling; believing an all-day lecture on clinical pathology was open to all attendees. It was noted on the registration form that this was a session requiring separate registration and fees, but that form was submitted weeks ago. All I was left with was my poor memory and an itinerary which listed only a clin path lecture. So having taken a day off work, driving an hour and a half to West Lafayette and pre-arranging a lunch date with my son, a sophomore in the School of Science, I decided instead to spend my morning retracing the steps of my old college days.
After downing a cup of hot tea and a Danish meant for the "paying" doctors, I hopped back into my car and headed to the western edge of campus. This is where I had lived the first four years of my seven as a student. I did not travel there to visit my old dorm, but rather to seek out an escape that had served me well in my early college years. My destination was Horticulture Park, better known as Hort Park, a clump of woods surrounded by a grassy area of rolling hills and together forming a 35 acre park. It is scarcely known to the general student population so today, much as in 1980, one can find himself alone despite a student population of nearly 40,000.
|The pond and bridge at Hort Park|
I first came to know Hort Park my freshman year when a girl with whom I had struck up a close relationship called me one evening and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. So as the sun started its descent into the west, we left the dorm, passed the shopping plaza across the street and there found a lane that ran past the intramural fields and into the woods. Following the lane, we first came to a scenic little pond on one side, a house on the other and a small, arched bridge separating the two. Passing by the pond we emerged into the park itself with a grassy hill sloping away to our left and the woods continuing on our right. We located a path opening into the woods’ edge and followed it until we reached the far side of the park. Here the woods ended at the back of an active dairy farm. The Holsteins were grazing when they first heard us, and one by one their heads popped up and they started approaching the fence, forming a line opposite us. For a while we just stood and stared at each other, and then a couple bolder individuals made their way to the fence to greet us and have their heads scratched. Each cow had an ear tag onto which the farmer had written their names. I recall some names such as Jane Dow, Blaze and March. We talked and petted the cows until a whistle from the farmer, signaling the evening meal and milking, caught their attention. Just as quickly as they had approached us, they now turned on their heels and headed back over the hill, forming a single file line and following the well-worn path to the barn which lay in the hazy distance.
|The old dairy farm at dusk.|
Emily and I visited the woods on a few occasions. One of the most beautiful walks came late one December night. It was finals week and I had a math final the next day, but a heavy snow had started and the white stuff was piling up quickly. Emily and I could not resist, so along with another girl, we bundled up, abandoned our studies and headed out to the woods. It was well after dark, but the reflective quality of the snow illuminated the scene around us. The snow was already a few inches deep and stood undisturbed on the arched bridge and frozen pond at the park’s entrance. We ventured out onto the pond with Emily afraid the ice would break beneath us at any time. Making my way a couple yards ahead, I decided to have a little fun by suddenly dropping to my knees and calling out as if I had just broken through the ice. Emily screamed and froze in place before realizing that it was all just an act. She quickly realized it was a joke, but her nerves were shaken. It was quite a while before she rallied the strength to finish crossing the ice. The snow was falling even harder now, and given that the woods are quite hilly the accumulating snow made the ravines treacherous. Eventually, we abandoned the park and worked our way south to the airport. There the blue lights pointing the way to the runways cast an azure glow to the snow. We may have been limited on Christmas lights in the dorm, but those blue airfield lights stretching into the night before us more than made up for it.
|Looking over the frozen pond on a snowy day.|
|Sara mooing at the cows.|
Eventually, I met Sara who would later become my wife, and Hort Park became a special place to share with her. Even before I took her to meet my parents, I took Sara to meet the cows. Just as before, when we appeared at the fence, the cows became instantly curious and came to investigate. Perhaps they were lured by Sara’s mooing, a trait she carries to this day whenever she sees a cow. I remember one cow in particular that kept trying to reach out and touch her with its long, long tongue. I can also recall one crisp autumn morning when we left the worries of school behind and strolled the woods and park.
|Sara resting on an old grapevine in the woods.|
Today was also an autumn morning, but unlike that day decades ago, the sun was not shining and a cool mist hung in the air. Repeating the route I had walked so many times before, I strolled past the shopping plaza and found the old lane that leads to the park. I first noticed that what used to be an intramural field is now a rugby field complete with bleachers. Passing the field and emerging where the house and pond had once stood, I was faced with only trees and shrubs. Everything was different, and it was hard for me to place them in my mind. However, a treeless depression filled with tall grass and jewel weed betrayed the pond’s old location. How often I had sat there on a bench studying calculus or physics. If it was warm and my classes ended early in the afternoon, I would grab my books and paper and head to the park. I never sought out libraries because sitting on the bench beneath the large trees, watching fallen leaves skate across the water at the mercy of the gentle breeze and listening to the birds was the perfect counterpoint to the rigors of my studies. On a couple of occasions, a pair of spaniels joined me. I never knew who owned them, but the pair would come bounding out of the woods and plunge into the chilly water. I would watch their canine version of synchronized swimming, with the dogs tracing large circles in the water or perhaps passing over top of one another while swimming side by side. Eventually, they would climb out of the pond, run to my bench and shake themselves dry, sending a shower of water onto my homework. Sometimes they would lay by me and warm themselves in the afternoon sun, but at other times they would bound off just as abruptly as they had arrived. Another animal that had caught my attention while sitting by the pond was an albino squirrel that lived in the trees behind the house. In fact, there was a family of them and I saw them on several occasions but only for one year. Now like the squirrels, the house and the pond have vanished forever.
|Another view of the pond in winter. This is not the home mentioned above.|
As I emerged onto the top of the hill I could visualize the students that used to sneak away from the dorms for a secluded spot to sunbathe. Blankets and towels would be scattered about the hillside, and here and there someone would be tossing a Frisbee with a friend. Today, it was just a damp, empty lawn. I started onto the path and was soon swallowed by the woods. It is easy to forget you are at a large, busy campus when all you can see in any direction are century old trees. Many were felled several years ago when a particularly strong storm hit the area. They now lay on their sides, some uprooted while others lay snapped and twisted where their diseased, hollow cores had given way. In places where they have fallen across the old path, the university has cut out the sections blocking the way but left the trees to follow their natural cycle of decay. The nut crops are now ripening, and everywhere I looked squirrels were busy hiding their winter’s stash. One squirrel nearly became a meal himself. I had slowly been making my way along the path when suddenly I heard a very agitated squirrel barking. I looked to my right to see it, tail twitching with each raspy bark, clinging to the side of a tree trunk about 4 feet in the air just as a hawk made a close pass. I could not tell if it was a true attempt to grab the squirrel or just a coincidence, but the hawk sailed on and, once it had calmed down, the squirrel scurried on up the trunk to continue gathering walnuts. It was these same paths I had walked in the spring time looking at the wild flowers each April. It was the first place I ever saw a white trillium or a lady slipper orchid. I even did a little mushroom hunting, finding one or two morels one year. The spring ephemerals disappeared months ago, and now the only color seemed to be the seed heads of the withering Jack in the Pulpit plants.
|Spring ephemerals popping up in Hort Park on a sunny day in 1981|
I followed the trail to the far end of the park, but today there were no cows in the field. In fact, there is no longer a dairy farm. The near pasture is overgrown and the area in the distance has been dug up and mounded in preparation for some construction project. I do not know what is being done with this area, but I do know my days of talking to the dairy herd are long past. I turned and continued following the trail along the length of the field. I was looking for an old house foundation that I recalled from my early explorations in the 80’s. I could not remember the exact location, but I did find evidence of early habitation, nonetheless. Various streams carve their way through the hills, especially after heavy rains. In one area, the water has uncovered the cast off and broken china of a former family. Like the skeleton of a dead animal, pieces of plates and saucers emerged white from the mud and gravel below. Although I searched the area looking for anything of value, nothing had survived intact. So I abandoned my archeological inspection and continued on my way.
|The woods looking eerie on a foggy morning 30 years ago|
By now the sun had broken through the clouds, and beams of sunlight, accentuated by the evaporating haze, punched holes in the canopy overhead and spot-lighted the forest floor below. Another familiar site now came into view - a stately home peeking through the trees. The property is known as Westwood, and it is the residence of the Purdue University president. A fence now divides President Cordova’s property from the woods, but I don’t believe there was a fence in place when I was a student since I can remember exiting the park by walking down the president’s driveway. In fact, one winter when snow had closed the university, some of the guys from my dorm had gone walking through the park and found themselves at President Hansen’s house. They decided to build a snowman on the grounds, and rather than calling the campus police, the president came out to talk with them and to take pictures. Afterwards, he and his wife invited the men in for some hot chocolate. That was the kind of man Arthur Hansen was.
|My friends heading out on their winter expedition that brought them to the president's house|
I still had not found the old homestead, but a path branching off the main trail and heading back towards the center of the woods looked promising. I did a right-face and moved along the new path. It wasn’t long before I spotted it, a square platform of concrete in the middle of the woods. This spot has always attracted me, not because it is interesting to look at, but because it invited me to imagine what sort of home had sat there and who may have occupied it. Was it a farmer? Was it part of the university faculty? The answers will never be known to me. What I do know was that it was a very small structure with a fireplace at one end. The chimney had long ago collapsed, and now the slab is covered with the loose rubble and pieces of mortar. It appears to have been fashioned from the river stone found on site, but the firebox was made of brick. Digging through the rubble, the charred bricks are still evident. As before, I began searching the area for any artifacts that might shed light on the home’s history, but other than scattered shards of the old window panes, there was nothing. The only intact item I found was a blue marble half buried in the soil behind the old chimney. It may not have been much, but it helped me feel a connection with the child who once lived there.
|The entrance to the woods|
The path led me back to the starting point, and as I emerged from the woods the sun again disappeared behind the clouds. It was as if a magical light had been cast on the exploration of my old haunts, but now I was back to reality, sort of like Dorothy stepping out of the colorful world of Oz and back into the black and white world of her everyday existence. Still having time to kill before meeting with my son, I did something I always enjoy. I joined the throngs of students headed to their 11:30 classes and followed them back to campus. I started at my old dorm and retraced the steps I had repeated thousands of times. Like the park, the campus has evolved and changed considerably since my days at Purdue. Where once I had played football and Frisbee, there now stands a dorm and parking garage. Another luxury dorm has replaced the small, flimsy “temporary” housing that had been Fowler Courts for 30 years. New buildings stand on what used to be green space on campus, and still others are in the process of getting face lifts. But it felt so natural to fall in line behind these kids and head toward the heart of campus. In my mind, I am still one of them. I feel like the twenty-something year old kid who once shouldered his backpack and marched off to class. It is only when I walk past a reflective surface and see the tired, overweight, middle-aged man looking back that the illusion is broken. However, today reality was not mirrored back, and so I could remain lost in the dream of again being a college student. I sat by the old fountain that used to mark the engineering mall, and from which I wrote letter after letter home to my parents and friends at other colleges. The fountain was moved in my final years at Purdue, but it felt good to again sit by its splashing waters. I then moved on to the strip of buildings that housed most of my freshman classes. There was Stanley Coulter where I had attended psychology class. Walking a little further I passed the chemistry building where both biology and chemistry classes met. Just past this was Heavilon “Heave” Hall where I took my early morning freshman communications class. Grissom Hall, named after the Apollo 1 astronaut from Indiana who died during a fiery accident on the launchpad, was also the site of an early morning class (I can’t recall which one) and completed the row of buildings. I cut between Heave and Chem and returned along the engineering mall, passing the physics building, the electrical engineering building (“double E”) which once housed two tall antennas which were my early navigational landmarks along with the old smokestack, the mechanical engineering building and the chemical engineering building. This was my home sophomore year as my engineering classes became more substantial. This was also the year I realized that I did not want to be an engineer and changed horses in mid-stream and to pursue veterinary medicine.
Those buildings marked my favorite years at Purdue. The college experience was still new, I was growing and developing so much as a person, and I was part of the student family. Later, once I was accepted to the School of Veterinary Medicine, my classes were all held within one building located far from the rest of campus. I was to spend my last four years isolated from the heart of campus life and with the same sixty some odd students. While they were academically the most important years of my college experience, those early years moving among the crowds of students, building new relationships, writing letters by the fountain or in front of the chem building, throwing Frisbee in the evenings on the intramural fields behind the dorm and attending the dorm’s social dances were by far the more formative and more enjoyable years.
|Jeff Kirby jumps for a Frisbee while I get sidetracked with handstands in front of the dorm.|
All good things must come to an end and so too did my stroll about campus. It was time to meet with David and share a lunch. Even that has changed. Gone are the cafeterias within each dorm were student waiters dished out one of three limited entrées. Now only certain dorms have food courts, and they rival many current day restaurants. The company was nice and the food was good, but the old residence hall comradery was missing. My son is happy and is getting a better education than his mother or I ever received, but there are times I wish he could step into our shoes and take a walk with us through those earlier years. Today, I am just glad I was able to once again take that walk, even if most of it was through the fog of 30 years of memories.