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Cultural guerrillas? No, not even with collegiate self-infatuation in full blossom would we have made that claim for ourselves. But those of us in the merry band that controlled the Yale Banner through the early 1970s were certainly eager to stir the sociopolitical cauldron that bubbled in those days.
We crafted a wicked four-page essay on gay liberation in 1972 that was meant to offend everyone—conservatives because we broached the subject at all, liberals because we did so with campy irreverence. We followed this two years later with a “Playmate"-style centerfold, featuring in almost full-frontal splendor the scion of a distinguished Yale family. Such yearbook staples as football coverage were pared to a scandalous minimum, while space was lavished instead on student communes like El Fataco Liberation Front and the Gonzo Illiterati Society. For a finale, we presented, 25 years in advance, the Yale Banner 2000. In our dark vision, “Yunicorp” had emerged from global holocaust as a hideous subterranean warren carved out of the old steam tunnel system, supported financially by nebulous Middle Eastern interests. Security forces had run amok, books had been incinerated, and the President was a hologram. The student body—androgynous, racially homogeneous, interchangeable clones—had no extracurricular interests besides mind-bending new drugs called Ecstaf and Oblivex and no career aspirations other than law or medicine.
To the extent that we invested an overarching purpose in all of these editorial antics, it was to take a venerable institution and make it street smart. Yale’s own leaders had encouraged us by example to believe such an incongruous thing could be done. No student revolutionary had more impact in upending Yale tradition than the director of admissions, R. Inslee Clark Jr., or the chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr. For infuriating the Old Blues whom we regarded so contemptuously in our youth, we dedicated the 1974 and 1975 yearbooks to these two men.
By embracing controversy, we were being true to our roots. The Banner was founded as a broadsheet in 1841 to present the students' side of a riot in which townspeople came close to burning the college down. Within a year, it was printing lists of students and secret societies and “has performed a somewhat similar function ever since,” wrote Brooks Mather Kelley in Yale: A History. We described the Banner on the title page as the “oldest college yearbook,” and although our roster of celebrity alumni did not equal that of the “oldest college daily,” we could claim Bob Woodward—more than good enough as the Nixon Presidency was unraveling.
When the Banner moved from a first-floor suite in Hendrie Hall into a vast, circular chamber at the summit of Memorial Hall, directly over the Presidents' Room and under the great copper-clad dome above Woolsey Hall, I imagined we would enjoy an Olympian perspective on campus ferment, which we would chronicle fearlessly and more than a bit impiously.
In the event, however, all we could see out our windows was the pigeon-spotted balustrade around the drum of the dome. Our soaring space (I’m never likely to work again in such an awesome setting unless I’m unexpectedly elected Pope) was more attic than communications hub. I wasn’t editor-in-chief for two consecutive terms because I skillfully fended off a host of able contenders. I was editor-in-chief for two terms because no one else wanted the job.
And our yearbooks, which were supposed to make Yale’s jaw drop, barely induced a yawn.
A decade earlier, surely, or a decade later, perhaps, they would have caused an uproar. But there was uproar enough in a decade that had begun with the tumult of the May Day strike. Apart from some booing at Class Day 1972, no one had time to revile the Banner publicly. I’m not even sure anyone read it.
The very indifference to tradition that allowed our cabal to control the Banner so long was not exactly one in which the publication was eagerly awaited and hungrily perused. Trying to make a college yearbook hip may have been as foredoomed as trying to introduce a rock band on the Lawrence Welk Show.
But then, as now, I have the enduring satisfaction of imagining a gray-haired classmate pulling the dusty volume from a shelf to conjure a time of pleasures rife, only to be reminded-through our little outrages—that it was a bit of a cauldron, after all.
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