Posts Tagged ‘science writers’

This sticks in my memory. A group of science writers met in the lobby of the conference hotel in New Haven. We were strangers from different parts of the country who had struck up conversations, bound together by common interests, six of us going out to eat on the last night of a fascinating conference.

We walked off into the chill autumn New Haven night looking for a place that was said to have the town’s best pizza. Earlier in the weekend it had snowed, big wet flakes surprising us in the morning, making the sidewalks slick, falling damply on my bare head. But now the night was clear as we walked toward the old railroad station marked on our map, leaving behind the lights of downtown.

One of the older men began to sing the Whiffenpoof song, which I recognized at once. “We are poor little lambs who have lost our way.” It’s a Yale song, a hundred or more years old. Students have sung it for generations, and maybe long ago the lyrics made sense – “Gentleman songsters off on a spree, doomed from here to eternity.” But that was back in 1917 when some of them really were doomed to die as officers and gentleman on a foreign battlefield. Now they were at Yale to polish their resumès, make the lifelong connections that would pull them several rungs up on the ladder that leads out of the pit of mediocrity.

The younger writers in our group had never heard the song – it had fallen out of popular memory. Even the man who had sung the song most memorably, Bing Crosby, was forgotten. What else that had seemed firm and immemorial had disappeared in a generation? I tried to peer through the darkness to see if these bright young women were joking.

We came to a park that was on our map and walked along it a few blocks into a neighborhood of 19th century houses with ironwork gates and painted shutters, lamps glowing yellow behind lace curtains. The leaves lay ankle deep on the sidewalks as we shuffled along, me humming the Whiffenpoof Song.

We came across a block of shops and restaurants and found the old fashioned pizza joint with an oven wide and deep enough to bake a dozen pizzas at once. It was warm, the pizzas were good, we drank beer and talked about this and that, tales of past conventions, the perils of freelance writing, the science we had listened to.

It was still early, so we walked back through the night to an Irish bar across from the old campus. On the wall behind our table were photos of long gone Yale students, mostly clean cut athletic young men in letter sweaters from another era. They all had an indefinable air of not quite arrogance, but self assurance in the extreme. The singer of the Whiffenpoof Song studied the photos for a moment. “Masters of the Universe,” he said.

I had seen the freshman dining hall at the awards dinner. It was like a replica of the enormous dining hall in the Harry Potter movies. I expected to see students in black robes at the long tables, but it was only several hundred science writers chattering away nonstop, their voices drifting up toward the distant roof beams and getting lost along the way.

On the last morning of the conference, very early, I walked from my hotel the few blocks to the old campus. It was just after dawn and there was hardly anyone around. Chiseled in the cornerstones of the Gothic buildings were dates from the early 1700s and the atmosphere of time and tradition was heavy. There was nothing modern to jar the sensation that a young Nathan Hale (1773) or James Fenimore Cooper (1805) might walk across the quadrangle at any moment, or even Nick Carraway, the fictional narrator of The Great Gatsby, who in the novel has attended Yale before the first world war.

It’s hard to think of America as a classless society after spending a few days in New Haven. What must it be like, I wondered, to live among these ancient buildings, to be taught by great scholars and Nobel laureates, to rub shoulders with future titans of industry, Wall Street wizards, senators’ sons, the children of the wealthy and privileged? Either it gives a person an incredible self confidence or its opposite, the sense of being on the outside looking in on the eternal party you can never enter. I think that’s the way Fitzgerald saw it, though he failed out of Princeton and not Yale.

I heard music playing and walked across the quad to the chapel where someone hidden from sight was playing on a pipe organ. Through the open front doors I could see colored light streaming through the forty-foot high stained glass windows, and the music, something 20th century and atonal, was two hundred years too modern for the setting. I listened anyway, but the time was out of joint and I felt claustrophobic and anxious to get back to my own era. There was something too heavy in the leaded windows and slate roofs. Or maybe it was just the sense that I was on the outside, and I would never be asked to come in.

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